Friday, December 05, 2014

Sonatine (1993)

Japan, 94 minutes
Director/writer/editor: Takeshi Kitano
Photography: Katsumi Yanagijima
Music: Joe Hisaishi
Cast: Takeshi Kitano, Aya Kokumai, Tetsu Watanabe, Masanobu Katsumura, Susumu Terajima, Ren Osugi, Tonbo Zushi, Ken'ichi Yajima, Eiji Minakata

There are at least two other movies named Sonatine. One is a 1984 Canadian feature described on as "Two teenaged friends have separate difficult experiences that make the girls seriously consider suicide." The other is a French short described on its Facebook page as "A once successful actress has taken refuge at her sister's home. Her presence triggers deep-seated feelings that lead to a tragic outcome." It is also the name of a piece for piano by classical composer Maurice Ravel. Try looking up the word and you soon arrive at "sonatina," defined as follows: "As a musical term, sonatina has no single strict definition; it is rather a title applied by the composer to a piece that is in basic sonata form, but is shorter, lighter in character, or more elementary technically than a typical sonata."

Pursuing: Sonata, according to Wikipedia, "literally means a piece played as opposed to a cantata, a piece sung." And so, as best I can tell, we have arrived at the fiction writer's shibboleth, "show, don't tell," with some overlying implication of insubstantiality, in terms of what the intriguing title is intended to convey. As much as anything Sonatine works like a musical piece—not to mention that it also contains wonderful music. Director, writer, and editor Takeshi "Beat" Kitano has created a befuddling movie that sits quietly and observes—observes contemporary (for 1993) Japanese yakuza gangster life, and more particularly observes the existential crisis of one specific mid-level chief, Aniki Murakawa (played by Kitano, which makes him a four-tools moviemaker at least).

In many ways, Sonatine is my kind of gangster picture. It is not about glorifying the life and is at pains to show how foolish are those who embrace its values and tenets. There is isolated horrific violence but it is sparing and presented in eccentric ways that make it more memorable, and chilling. I might make a complaint about the layers upon layers of motivation and deceit distributed among the wide array of players—it is confusing, beside the point for the most part, and distracting, too tempting to become lost in puzzling the details, which come at us haphazardly, as if they have something to tell us—or as if they have nothing to tell us. The real movement in this movie is within the soul of its protagonist, Murakawa.

Sonatine alternates whimsically between the grim face-offs that are the gangster way of life (in the movies certainly), somber moments of introspection that feel true, and playful slapstick cinema, with frosting-cake music that periodically deepens the tones. I think it's best taken as a set of mood pieces—a sonata, as given. The storyline imposed on them involves Murakawa's betrayal by higher levels of management. The betrayal is in part, perhaps, because he has been too hard on the wrong person's son, but even more so, by what is said, because he has developed into a productive earner that those above him believe can simply be replaced. Anyone else could have guessed that a four-tools moviemaker cannot be replaced so easily.

Murakawa receives orders from above to support one side of a gang war in another city. He is dubious from the start. The last time he went on a mission he lost three people, which obviously pains him. And he seems to know on some level that something about this one stinks. But he is a good soldier and does what he is told, even as he is beginning to express an interest, to friends and confidantes, in getting out of the business.

After a big shootout and other assorted deaths, which don't take up much time, Murakawa and what's left of his crew repair to a safe house by the sea to lay low and figure out their next moves, and/or await further orders. It is here that the true heart of the movie occurs, and bears all the most wonderful sequences to the end. As Murakawa lets himself slide into the easy casual life afforded them and their beach life, a gentle side starts to show. He has never shown any taste for the violence, he is saddened and pained by the loss of life, and now, with everyone relaxing and healing, he begins to heal himself, plays pranks on the others, takes up with a young woman he rescues from an assaulter on the beach, and seems to find a kind of peace within himself. It is grotesque in the context but also heartening.

The last movement is not as lighthearted as the title might lead us to believe (although compare the other summaries going under it). Murakawa's betrayal is complete and he responds the only way he knows how. These scenes are notably detached from their ferocity, as if still dwelling in the calm and peace of those days by the seaside. But the days beside the sea are over.

Joe Hisaishi's score is a wonderful fat presence when it appears, layering on the moods with a trowel, finishing off each movement of this strange picture on haunting elegiac tones. The music, and Kitano's face, are what stay with you longest.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe the film is saying the gangster life is shaped by context more than chosen by its actors? Anyway, interesting write-up.